PART I: The COVID-19 pandemic and how your company should respond
BY: ZOHARE ALI SHARIFF, CEO, ASIATIC PUBLIC RELATIONS NETWORK (PRIVATE) LIMITED
It will not be incorrect to say that perhaps not a single person alive on the planet today has previously gone through anything even vaguely similar to what we are experiencing today in the shape of the coronavirus pandemic. The last influenza pandemic in the world, as many of us have learnt in recent days, came about in 1918, commonly referred to as the Spanish Flu, and lasted from January 1918 to December 1920. It infected approximately 500 million people, or about a quarter of the world’s then population, and killed between 17 million to 50 million. Even the World Wars did not bring life to a standstill for all humanity in every country of the world, as COVID-19 has now done.
In short, COVID-19 is a unique global crisis of massive scale, great unpredictability and a breakneck speed of escalation. All this is resulting in uncertainty, fear, disorientation, mistrust and even panic. In a time like this, as communications and PR professionals, APR has drafted a two-part paper to focus on the corporate response required to COVID-19, and especially the role of the communications and public relations function. In part 1, we will go through the response required from the corporate sector as a whole.
COVID-19 PANDEMIC AND THE CORPORATE SECTOR
The first area of concern for a company has to be the safety and well-being of its employees. The critical element to reducing the spread of the disease is to adopt social distancing, and if a company has not already gone for instituting a Work From Home (WFH) protocol, it must first of all seriously consider doing this now, depending of course on its nature of business.
At this time corporate leaders, too, need to appreciate that they cannot respond to the COVID-19 crisis as they would to any other. It may draw on some or even several of the ready SOPs for crisis management that a company may have, but by and large the response in this case will have to be largely improvised. A fundamental principle of crisis management theory is that a company must always have a ‘sleeper’ crisis management team in place, which can be activated at very short time should any crisis occur.
In the case of the COVID-19 crisis, and depending on the size of the organization, it may well be necessary to form a network of multi-disciplinary teams, with clear and specific roles and responsibilities for each team, and for every member of each team.
Some essential guidelines for the formation of the teams and their working are:
a. Besides defining the role and responsibilities of each team, clear priorities for the response to the crisis for each team must be set.
b. Teams must be empowered to proactively seek and apply solutions which that will work for addressing their defined priorities, without expecting for all directives to come from above.
c. If a network of teams is required and established, instead of a single team, then it is important that a central coordinator (one person or again a team) is appointed with the single responsibility of ensuring the seamless interworking of the teams like a well-oiled machine.
d. It is important that leaders of the teams are carefully chosen based on their experience and even more so, based on their known ability to be able to bear stress and maintain clear and objective thinking.
e. Teams must record in writing all issues they are managing and all actions which they take, so that at any point in time the company leadership has a record with timelines of all developments.
f. The leadership needs to be involved by regularly evaluating the situation from multiple angles. Different scenarios relating to what can happen next, holistically with the crisis and also in relation to the company and its business must be conjectured and a first draft response to each scenario and each level of escalation must be worked out and reviewed regularly.
g. Organizations may also require engaging external specialists for expert advice and support to the teams. Such specialists, if engaged, should be charged with going beyond just counselling, to devising solutions for the crisis team (s) and then supervising the execution of these solutions. For example if a company has a large labour force which works in close physical proximity and one or more of the workers show symptoms of being infected, then it is very likely that many more may also be infected, even if the others are not yet showing any symptoms. In such a situation the company may need to immediately engage an epidemiologist.